Representing your country at the Paralympic Winter Games means the culmination of years of work, hundreds upon hundreds of hours of training and sacrificing, all to be the best.
It means the opportunity to step into the spotlight on the biggest stage in sports.
It means a chance at a gold medal.
For Steve Arsenault, it means a whole lot more.
When Arsenault, 25, skated onto the ice with Canada’s National Sledge Team in Sochi, it marked the biggest milestone yet on an eight-year journey that has taken him from the cusp of the Paralympics to being off the national team, and back.
Between the 2006 Paralympics in Torino and the 2014 Games, Arsenault experienced the lowest of lows in his personal life and his athletic life, but has come back a better person, and a better player.
A national team rookie during the 2005-06 season, the Spruce Grove, Alta., native was one of the last cuts from the Paralympic roster, which was made just that much more disappointing when Canada won its first-ever Paralympic gold medal in Italy.
Motivated by the snub, Arsenault came back ready to play in the fall of 2006, making the Team Canada roster for the second consecutive season, and contributing to the team that won gold at the inaugural World Sledge Hockey Challenge.
Another strong season followed in 2007-08, but that’s when life changed.
“In August, just before try-outs, my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumour, so she went in for surgery,” Arsenault recalls. “The surgery was successful, for the most part. There were a couple issues, but we thought she was going to bounce back. But that night she had a stroke.”
Jill Arsenault was put into an induced coma, to see if her condition would improve. Numerous times over the next month the family was called in, but every time Jill would battle through, until eventually she could no longer fight.
“We got another call to come in at 4 a.m., and she had a massive heart attack,” Arsenault says of his mother’s final day. “They moved her from ICU in neurology down to cardiology at the University of Alberta. At this point she went 25 minutes without her heart beating, and they got it beating again.”
With Jill just barely hanging on, and to respect her do-not-resuscitate wishes, the decision was made by the family to remove her from life support.
Jill Arsenault passed away on Sept. 28, 2008.
Before entering the hospital for surgery, knowing her chances for survival were slim, Jill wrote each member of her family a letter, to be opened after her death.
“In the letters was a bunch of life stuff,” Arsenault says, “but for me, the biggest one was that my mom wanted me to work hard and get into Vancouver for the Paralympics.”
Despite missing the national team selection camp, Arsenault was added to the roster, but never saw action in a game, and following the 2008-09 season decided Team Canada wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“I regret it, because I know how much better I’d be today, but at that time, it was the way I had to mourn, and if I wouldn’t have mourned or grieved, I probably would have self-destructed, and I don’t know what would have happened,” Arsenault says. “Now, knowing what I know, I definitely did not handle that properly. I just didn’t want to play international hockey at the time. I just wanted to be alone, and I did that. Unfortunately, my mom, if she could have a conversation with me now, she’d probably hit me, because I didn’t make the right decision.”
Arsenault continued to play the game at the club team level with the Edmonton Impact, and was a teammate of Matt Cook, who spent a season with Canada’s National Sledge Team in 2008-09.
Cook passed away in April 2010 after his cancer returned, and it was the death of his friend, combined with watching Team Canada compete on home ice at the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, that reignited the passion in Arsenault after two years away from the international game.
“At that time, I felt that with Matt passing I had a lot of time of reflection, and I think at that time I grieved for my mom as well, because I’d been putting it off for two years. I used that to motivate me after Vancouver, and watching that fueled me too, because I knew I could be part of that team.”
Arsenault got back in the gym, dropped 25 pounds, was invited to national team selection camp in Petawawa, Ont., in September 2010 and reclaimed his spot on the Team Canada roster.
But just months into his comeback, with his mind finally back at 100 per cent, it was his body that gave out.
“When we were in Japan, I hurt my shoulder,” Arsenault says. “I didn’t think much of it, because it wasn’t bothering me too much. I’m a pretty stubborn guy so I put it off, figured rest would fix it.”
But the more he played, the worse it got, to the point where his shoulder was separating while he was on the ice. He won a second World Sledge Hockey Challenge gold medal in London, Ont., in April 2011, but that would be the last sledge hockey game he would play for more than a year.
“I went through physio that summer and came into try-outs, and my shoulder was pretty much toast. I couldn’t do anything. At that time, they told me I was definitely on IR until I got it fixed. I met a surgeon through a family friend of mine, and he did a bunch of CT scans and MRIs and found out I had a torn labrum, and a bunch of bone issues; my shoulder was pretty much disintegrating.”
Arsenault was put on a waiting list for surgery, and finally went under the knife on Christmas Eve 2011.
“(The doctors) told me after it was probably the worst shoulder they’ve ever seen, and they don’t ever want to work on another sledge hockey player again.”
A six-month recovery meant no chance of returning for the 2012 IPC Sledge Hockey World Championship, and left Arsenault facing a cold Edmonton winter with nothing but physiotherapy ahead of him.
“I was devastated, it hurt a lot. I went for lunch with a buddy, and I just broke down. I worked so hard for something, and just to have it snatched from you … it was tough.”
The months of physio, described by Arsenault as “the most painful thing I’ve ever done,” led him back to Team Canada once again for the 2012-13 season, which culminated in a gold medal at the 2013 IPC Sledge Hockey World Championship, his first major international event, and now to Sochi and his first Paralympics.
The road back, both from his mother’s death and his shoulder injury, has not been easy on Arsenault, but it has made him more conscious of the unique opportunity he has: to play hockey for Team Canada.
“I get emotional, because of all the work I had to go through to get back; it represents more than just my country, it’s my family, my friends, the people I had in my life that are now gone. It’s an honour, but I use it to fuel me, because every time I get on the ice I want to be better than the last time I got on, and I don’t ever want to give that up again.”
So does reaching his (and his mother’s) goal of playing in the Paralympic Winter Games mean Arsenault is content with where his sledge hockey career has taken him?
Not a chance. His career path is pointing up, and he’s going to have company for the ride.
“I still use my mom to motivate me in everything I do. I still feel like she’s watching. I look back at it, and I did what I had to do to get over (her passing). Everybody deals with death differently, but if you can find something to motivate you, it’s ridiculous how high you can go. If you find something to give you that push, the sky is the limit.”
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